Jonathan Kaye, Director of Product Management, Connectivity Solutions for Laird
Andrew Beattie, CTO of Sensorstream
Burnside Farm is one of those places that seems to stand outside of time, and it happens to be located near the town of Ayr in Ayrshire which Robert Burns called home. The farm in its current form was founded in 1877 and has been in continuous operations since then, primarily focused on raising sheep. But the farm’s history goes back centuries as ancient shepherding and farming grounds for generations of Scots. On the surface, the farm’s pastoral beauty, its historic buildings and its view of the Isle of Arran on a clear day all create the impression that it is charmingly frozen in history—much like nearby world-famous Troon golf course—but that first impression is deceiving because Burnside Farm is actually serving as a fascinating laboratory for IoT sensor deployments that are redefining what is possible to achieve with sensors based on LoRa technology (often referred to as a LPWAN/Low-Power Wide Area Network).
Burnside’s use of technology is not limited to IoT sensors. It is also on the cutting edge of using technology like wind power and bio mass boilers as well as ensuring its financial foundation by diversifying into agritourism. In this way, the farm is retaining the spirit of the Scotland that Robert Burns celebrated in his 18th century poems while also serving as a hothouse for the use of 21st century technology that will ensure it survives another century or two or three. As many readers will know, LoRa provides secure, bi-directional data transfer and communications with IoT networks over long distances for years without a battery change. It can send and receive signals up to 10 miles, and that distance can extend to hundreds of miles with additional gateways if needed. This makes it an ideal foundation for IoT networks deployed in remote locations where telecommunications infrastructure is limited—which is exactly the case with the farmlands in the rolling hills around Ayrshire, Scotland.
In many ways, a remote location like Burnside is exactly what you would envision when you think about geographic areas where LoRa’s long-distance capabilities would thrive. Just like so many remote industrial locations where telecommunications infrastructure is sparse, Burnside is located in geography where landline phone service, cell service and broadband access are limited or nonexistent. These geographic challenges make the farm’s IoT project similar to so many of the remote facilities and equipment that readers of this magazine support on a daily basis. Two of LoRa’s primary attributes for remote sites like these are:
- Its ability to provide data backhaul for IoT sensor networks over very long distances
- And its remarkable power usage efficiency that makes them a very low maintenance option requiring very infrequent battery changes
LoRa Exceeds Expectations…and Specifications
The IoT network that SensorStream implemented at Burnside not only puts those attributes to full use, but is also pushing the envelope for what is considered possible with LoRa. For example, a recent test SensorStream conducted at the farm demonstrated that LoRa can successfully communicate as far as 22.4 kilometers before needing a gateway to relay the signal along—a distance that far exceeds the advertised distance capability of the technology and that expands the scope of where LoRa can be used. The team believes that even farther distances are possible if they put on their hiking boots and head deeper into the hills to set up longer-range test. Another key takeaway from SensorStream’s work at Burnside is the finding that actual battery life for LoRa sensors may be much longer than the already-remarkable expected battery life in spec sheets. Based on preliminary battery usage metrics from IoT that have been deployed in the field, SensorStream expects sensors on the grounds to last months, or even more than a year, longer than the upper limit of what LoRa sensors are projected to achieve. This ability to work over such long distances and with such long field battery life are redefining what engineers can expect from IoT networks using LoRa, and these findings also make LoRa even more attractive for the remote site installations.
But distance and battery life are not surprising for LoRa, given that those are two of the technology’s calling cards. The most surprising aspects of SensorStream’s IoT network at Burnside are the ways that LoRa is being used to turn expectations for the technology on their head. The most fascinating may be how LoRa sensors are providing the foundation for a sophisticated physical security system that is protecting the farm’s assets and workers. Physical security probably isn’t on the list of use cases that would come to mind for LoRa, and crime deterrence may also seem like it should have nothing to do with a location as idyllic as the farmlands around Robert Burns’ hometown. But there has been a rising wave of criminal activity in the rural areas of the UK as more and more security cameras and other anti-terrorism technologies have been deployed in major metro areas. All of that surveillance has made it difficult for robbers in the hearts of cities, so they have headed out to the countryside where farms are often soft targets for stealing high-value assets like vehicles, diesel fuel, specialized equipment and more. It’s a sad commentary on the state of the world that farm owners have to worry about criminal activity like this, but Burnside farm has taken a proactive approach to the issue by working with SensorStream to use LoRa sensors for a variety of physical security activities. And this application of LoRa holds important lessons for remote industrial sites where physical access and security are such a priority.
SensorStream’s implementation uses its rugged, “stick and go” Sensor Action Monitors and Action Links connected together with a Sensorstream Wide Area Network. The devices are easily deployed without the need for complex RF expertise, and they can be repositioned without difficulty to monitor new areas for security as needed. For the Burnside project, a combination of static and mobile sensors is being used to support the variety of activities the network conducts. The sensors and WAN utilize Laird’s Sentrius’ RM1xx LoRa + BLE module as a foundational technology. The Burnside implementation places multi-purpose sensors in strategic locations across the sprawling farm to:
- Monitor and provide alerts about suspicious activity such as the movement of trucks in areas of the farm where no workers are present or after hours when farm operations are typically minimal
- Track unscheduled movement of high-value equipment like tractors, ATVs/quads, trucks, etc. and alert staff if machinery is being moved at times that are not consistent with typical farm operations
- Monitor access to buildings, holding tanks, fuel tanks with sensors embedded in access points like doors, fuel caps, etc., providing alerts to any activity that is outside of normal access parameters
- Track visiting vehicles during operational hours to ensure that visits are consistent with expected deliveries and stay within the expected routes delivery personnel would use to carry out their tasks
- Monitor for intrusion of potential poachers in remote areas of the farm where sheep graze far from the central operations of the farm
- And provide other security alerts to workers and managers via a simple smartphone interface that puts that information in the pocket of every member of the staff
For an agricultural setting, the typical expectation would be that sensor networks would be for traditional agri-sensor tasks like tracking humidity, soil temperature, sunlight exposure and more. Many of the sensors in the Burnside implementation also do that, but physical security was a primary driver for the project. At first glance, LoRa seems like an unlikely technology for physical security, especially with numerous GPS-based technologies that are widely used for tracking equipment. But criminals in the UK have been using signal-blocking technology to jam those traditional technologies when carrying out their robberies. In contrast, LoRa technology is less susceptible to those signal-jamming techniques, making it a technology that can successfully frustrate even the most tech-savvy criminals. By combining a multi sensor protection area defeating one sensor will not disable the protection cordon and because the sensors are so easily moved and adjusted, the farm’s staff can easily reposition sensors to match seasonal changes of where equipment is located. The sensor network is easily adapted to how activities on the farm evolve over the four seasons, for example following where sheep are moved for better grazing, and more. Although Burnside is a farm, these same applications are universally applicable to industrial sites and other remote facilities, where this same functionality can play so many roles.
Stick-and-Go Implementation and Self-Discovering Network
Another aspect of the Burnside implementation that up-ends expectations about LoRa is how simple initial deployment and repositioning have proven to be. Engineers who have not worked with LoRa before may assume that a high level of RF expertise may be needed for initial setup of a network and for each adjustment—as is often required with other IoT technologies. This implementation in the Scottish borders demonstrates that it is nearly impossible to foul up the initial implementation or undermine it by moving sensors around. To set up each segment of the network, a central gateway was placed in a location free of major physical obstructions, and then the stick-and-go sensors were put in place. Once everything is turned on, the network self-discovers the sensors, and the network is off and running doing what it was designed to do. As sensors are moved to new locations, the network simply adjusts to the new location without any complex RF re-engineering required.
One attribute of Laird’s LoRa modules is that the chipsets use ADR automated frequency adjustments that monitor the signal-to-noise ratio and adjust frequency to maintain the best connection between wireless sensors and the LoRa gateway. Essentially, it is artificial intelligence built into the sensors and gateway that allow the network to learn about its environment, adapt to the environment, and maintain strong connectivity without the need for intervention and management by an engineer. This is an attribute of LoRa that is not widely known, but it is a critical element of the Burnside implementation because it enables the IoT network to operate without the need for complex RF engineering for the initial implementation or for ongoing operations.
Another fascinating, expectation-busting aspect of Burnside’s IoT network is how the farm is using the LoRa sensors to enhance safety. For many remote site implementations that use LoRa, monitoring the health of machinery is a task that would often come to mind. But at an active farm that has a large number of workers and visitors coming and going on a daily basis, LoRa sensors are playing a role in ensuring that people stay safe no matter where they are on the farm. As an example, the farm’s full-time employees would all have in-depth knowledge about safety-related issues such as where dangerous chemicals may be stored, where difficult-to-see holes are located, where in-progress construction is happening, etc. But contractors and other visitors to the farm would not have that knowledge. To address that knowledge gap, SensorStream’s IoT is using the beaconing function in Laird’s wireless modules to turn sensors into alerts that inform people via smartphone when they are approaching an area with safety issues. This beaconing function in LoRa sensors is a feature that most engineers are not familiar with, but it has significant potential for use in providing safety alerts and other information to workers who visit remote facilities and equipment that they may not have worked on before.
One of the most exciting things about the LoRa IoT network at Burnside is that we are likely just scratching the surface of what the farm will eventually use the sensors for. The farm’s staff are driving much of the creative thinking about other ways that the sensors could be used to enhance farm operations, achieve greater efficiency, enhance security and safety, and more. Without requiring any changes to the physical deployment of sensors, the network can be “trained” to do new things with simple firmware updates to the sensors and additional functionality added to the network software. This allows the IoT network to evolve over time based on how the farm wants to use it and based on new ideas for how the sensors can support the farm’s operations.
Burnside may not look like a laboratory for the way IoT will transform our world in the 21st century, but looks can be deceiving. This historic farm on historic sheep-grazing land in Robert Burns’ beloved countryside is a proving ground for uses of LoRa networks that will be replicated in projects in every corner of the globe. Burns predates the era of IoT by a couple of centuries, so he never wrote about wireless sensors. It’s a pity because he surely would have found a way to make them sound majestic. But he did write extensively about the nobility of farming, which feels like a fitting way to end an article about Burnside and the way it is using new technology to continue a centuries-old legacy:
My father was a farmer upon the Carrick border*
And carefully he bred me in decency and order
He bade me act a manly part, though I had ne’er a farthing
For without an honest manly heart, no man was worth regarding.
*A neighboring area south of Ayrshire
About the Authors:
Jonathan Kaye is the Product Director of Connectivity Solutions at Laird, which provides a full range of modules and engineering services that simplify the process of using wireless technology, including LoRa+BLE modules and gateways. Laird is a global leader in wireless technologies, embedded, pre-certified wireless modules and design services that are making the next generation of connected smart products possible. Laird’s Connectivity Solutions Business Unit, which provides a full range of embedded wireless modules and other solutions that simplify the process of using wireless technology. In this role at the company, Kaye is a lead developer of Laird’s embedded wireless connectivity solutions. He has nearly 20 years of experience in the embedded wireless and product design field, including positions at EZURiO and Lever Technology before joining Laird eight years ago. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrew Beattie is the CTO of Sensorstream, a UK-based company that are doing groundbreaking work in the deployment of IoT networks that represent the next major wave of computing innovation. For more than 30 years, Beattie has been at the forefront of IT implementations that are milestones, including the first large-scale deployment of Internet infrastructure in the 1990s and a long list of first-of-their-kind IT implementations in the financial, defense, telecom, retail, and technology industries. He has worked with many of the largest corporations and governmental organizations in the world, not only leading large-scale IT projects but also defining multi-year IT strategies that become the foundation for growth. As the CTO of Sensorstream, Beattie is at the forefront of yet another major shift in IT as small, low-power wireless sensors and controls make it possible to put the power of computing in nearly any physical space and geographic location. He can be reached at email@example.com.